Monday, August 16, 2021

Culinary Artists Week #2: America's Goat Cheese Whiz

Judith Schad at Capriole Farm in 2000 (Sun-Times photo)

     This story brings up so many memories. I had wanted to trace the journey of a salmon from a lake in Minnesota to a table at the Ritz-Carlton, even went to the Chicago Fish House, trying to set it up. But doing so proved difficult, and I thought to instead spotlight one of the cheeses that Sarah Stegner was so intent upon in my profile of her, posted yesterday and thought to visit Judith Schad's Capriole Farm.
     I wanted to bring her something special, for hosting me, so went to Tekla Importing to buy a few bottles of high end wine. Owner Sofia Solomon said her father started the Solomon drug store chain, and I realized she was the sister of Essee Kupcinet, wife of the famous columnist, born Essee Solomon. I had written her advance obit. "I bet I know more about your sister than you do," I teased. She looked dubious. "Her middle name is Joan, but it used to Jane: Why'd she change it?" I asked. She looked at me blankly. I leaned in, grinning, "Mad for Joan Crawford," I whispered.
     That, and as I toured Capriole Farms, I kept murmuring, "The boys would love this." Each time, Judith Schad replied, "You have to come back with them." About the third time she said that, I raised a finger, and warned, "If you invite us again, I'll bring them, and you'll be sorry. The boys were 3 and 4. She invited us, and I brought the whole family. We had a blast; Ross became enamored of going after all the flies on a goat ranch with a swatter. I can't speak for Schad, though I got the distinct sense she was relieved when the weekend came to the a close.
    Capriole Farm, like many food establishments, suffered during COVID, seeing orders decline by 75 percent, but is still in business.

     What looks so refined on a gold-rimmed plate set on a starched white tablecloth in the gilded splendor of the Ritz-Carlton dining room begins its existence in southeast Indiana at the underside of a goat.
     Goat cheese has yet to challenge favorites such as Cheddar or gouda, but the dry, pungent curd is enjoying a surge in popularity at Chicago's better restaurants and supermarkets, part of a renewal of interest in fine cheeses.
     "We're huge on cheese," said Rick Tramanto, chef at the culinary palace Tru, where goat cheese is typically included among the array of cheeses prominently displayed on an elaborate cart at the restaurant entrance.
     As with wine, France still enjoys prominence in cheesemaking. But the French are being challenged, at least when it comes to goat cheese, by a former medieval literature scholar turned Hoosier goat farmer named Judith Schad.
     "Judith Schad is the queen of cheesemaking in America," said Sarah Stegner, executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton, as she stood in the dining room, addressing a group of 50 cheese lovers brought together to eat cheese and drink wine, with the proceeds from the event used to send a member of the Ritz staff to study cheesemaking at Schad's Capriole Farms in Greenville, Ind.
     They should bring boots. One time zone and 350 miles southeast, the queen of cheesemaking in America has pulled on her green rubber barn boots and is squooshing through barnyard muck in the pre-dawn darkness to bring blocks of hay to her herd of 307 goats, which cluster and bleat around her.
     "It's not exactly the Ritz, is it?" she says, laughing.
     Nor is it agribusiness. For an endeavor that ships out 50,000 pounds of cheese, in various forms, flavors and textures, Capriole Farms, if not quite the one cow, one horse, one chicken farm found in children's books, has a certain warmth and humanity rare in the typical dairy product factory.
     Schad's home is a pair of rustic cabins artfully cobbled together. A grand piano rests in the book-lined living room, and a huge, inviting kitchen bristles with hanging pots and a curing country ham.
     Across a pond is the ramshackle old barn where Schad's goats—all named—wander. Although they are typically milked by machine, half a dozen at a time, Schad still finds herself occasionally squatting at the hind end of a goat, milking into a metal bucket.
     There are two distinct worlds when it comes to making goat cheese—the goat part and the cheese part. One is cleaner than the other, though the goats are fairly fastidious in their habits, as far as barnyard animals go.
Goats at Capriole Farm (Sun-Times photo).
     "Goats are cats with horns," Schad said, and the animals do have a certain feline grace and deliberation; curious, in a slow-moving fashion.
     Cheese starts with milk. Every morning, before dawn, about a third of Schad's goats are directed toward the milking area, where they clomp heavily up an inclined wooden board and find a place among six empty metal racks.
     The rubber hoses of the Pulsator milking machine are attached, and the milk is pumped into a 500-gallon tank. Goat milk has a nutty, grassy taste, rich in the mouth, and is the secret behind the cheese.
     "What goat milk has is this incredibly fine texture," Schad said. "Nothing says I can't make the same cheeses with cow milk. The problem is fat composition. Fat in cow's milk has larger globules. Goat's milk is naturally homogenized, velvety, fine-tasting, smooth and creamy."
    The rest of the herd are not milked because they're resting or pregnant.
     "They need a rest," Schad said. "If you don't give them a rest, it's not as healthy, and they really make me feel bad." She laughs at the thought of letting emotions enter into the realm of goat husbandry. "A lot of this does fly in the face of good dairy practice."
     After the milk is taken from the goats, it is pumped into a stainless steel tank, then pasteurized at 145 degrees. The pasteurized milk then is mixed with a bit of the cheese cultures -- the bacteria that turn it into cheese. The cultures live in five mason jars set on a window ledge in Schad's cheesemaking room.
     "This is the mother," Schad announced, proudly showing off a jar of what looks like cloudy water.
     The coagulating mixture is ladled into —what else?—cheesecloth, and hung up to dry, the liquid slowly dripping out of rows of white globes.
     Schad got into cheesemaking in the most backward way imaginable. Burnt out on the life of a grad student studying medieval literature, Schad and her husband, Larry, bought a dilapidated farm, a return to her roots.
     "I had grandparents who were so incredible," she said. "They had this mini-farm. They did everything. My grandfather grew one of every kind of plant in the universe. It was such an idyllic childhood: planting apple trees, picking up persimmons. No child could have grown up in any more wonderful place."
     The idyll ended when she was a teen and her grandmother had a stroke.
     "I think I always wanted to get back to that," she said. "Plus the cooking. My grandmother was an incredible cook. I cooked since I was 12."
     A farm needs animals, which were acquired, including a couple of goats. The children entered the goats into 4-H contests. The milk was simply thrown away.
     Which seemed a shame.
     Schad started making chevre, the basic goat cheese. Then she added a variety of flavors and types, dubbing them with solid American names containing a hint of pun, such as Old Kentucky Tomme ("tomme" being another word for a hunk of cheese). A layering of three cheeses is dubbed "Fromage a Trois."
     Another cheese, with the simple name "Banon," for a town in France, is soaked in whiskey and wrapped in chestnut leaves which, given the blight-induced scarcity of chestnut trees, is no small task.
     Her efforts began to pay off five years ago. Her Wabash Cannonball took "Best of Show" at the 1995 American Cheese Society show.
     "Stunningly delicious," wrote cheese guru Steve Jenkins in his 1996 fromage bible, Cheese Primer.
     "I sing her praises," said Sofia Solomon, owner of Tekla Importers, which wholesales Capriole cheese. "I think she's really extraordinary. And not only because she named a cheese for me. She is a fabulous artisanal producer. She's just a wonderfully interesting person and great fun to work with."
     Schad certainly is great fun to visit. No sooner has your bag hit the floor than she has opened the wine and is out in the cheese house, searching through her trays of exotic, ash-cloaked cheeses for one of optimum ripeness.
    "Tonight, we eat cheese," she said, striding into her walk-in refrigerator, filled with shelves of wooden crates, each holding neat arrays of geometric cheese.
     She seizes a particularly ripe-looking cheese. "I kind of really love it, but I'm not sure anyone else would. I'm loving it. I love all that moldy, wonderful thing happening."
      —Published in the Sun-Times, August 13, 2000


  1. Wonderfully evocative. Idyllic does seem to be the word for it. "America's Goat Cheese Whiz." I see what you did there, as they say...

  2. A few years ago I visited a farm in Italy that produced Pecorino Toscana, a hard cheese made from sheep's milk. Very tasty. And the process was interesting,the hardest part being extracting the milk. The milkmaid needed a very low stool.


    1. we have 2 goats. hard to imagine over 300. thats a lot of work

    2. In the Seventies, I had a friend who had goats on his farm in DeKalb County. Hr sold the milk to the mothers of newborns. Goats attract flies. Trying to swat all the flies on a farm with goats would be like trying to empty Lake Michiban with a spoon.

      And goats may be as clean and as graceful and as curious as cats, but what I remember most about that farm are the clouds of flies...and the smell. Male goats mark their territory by peeing all over the place, and on themselves. Hence the expression: "You stink like a goat."


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